Commuting in Your Airplane

Five different tales of getting to and from the office in some pretty incredible rides.

(Photos courtesy of Hoot Gibson)|

For the millions who drive to work every day, the mindless process of traveling endless highways and negotiating bumper-to-bumper traffic is typically something to be endured and rarely something to enjoy. Studies show that lengthy car commutes subtract from an individual’s overall sense of happiness more than just about any other routine activity.

But for the lucky few who are able to fly an airplane to work, the daily trip to the office takes on a whole new dimension. For that small group, the convenience and control provided by such a means of travel are unparalleled. But beyond the more concrete benefits of time savings and expedience, commuting via airplane provides something else: the opportunity to enjoy more time in the air and to reap the unique satisfaction that only a purposeful flight can provide.

Here’s a look at a handful of individuals who have had the chance to reap those very benefits. While their stories vary widely, they share the upsides and challenges known to all pilots lucky enough to skip rush hour and take the route less traveled.

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Robert “Hoot” Gibson: T-38

When Robert “Hoot” Gibson was selected to become part of the first group of astronauts to participate in NASA’s newly launched shuttle program in 1978, the job came with a lesser-known perk: a personal T-38 he could use to commute to training locations throughout the country.

During Gibson’s tenure, NASA maintained a fleet of 30 T-38s, making the supersonic trainers available to astronauts on a priority basis depending upon the proximity of their next mission. Gibson and his colleagues used the airplanes to travel to a variety of training locations, including Edwards Air Force Base in California and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Frequently, Gibson would fly the T-38 from NASA headquarters in Houston to El Paso, Texas, where he would practice landings in the shuttle training aircraft, a Grumman Gulfstream II that had been outfitted with shuttle cockpit displays, thrust reversers and full-span flaperons in order to mimic the landing characteristics of the space shuttle.

“It was a wonderful adventure to get to fly the STA, because it necessarily always involved two sorties in the T-38 to accomplish it,” Gibson says.

As a mission approached, he would have at least one scheduled session in the STA in El Paso per week, in addition to the demanding training requirements in Houston and elsewhere. During those times, Gibson says, the T-38 proved vital in the successful completion of a jam-packed workweek that would often extend to 60 or 70 hours. The airplane would allow him to finish up an 8 to 12 p.m. sim session in Houston and then make a quick hop over to El Paso, where he’d fly about 10 approaches in the STA before jumping back into the T-38 and heading home, all in the same day.

The swiftness with which the T-38 could make such a trip was a key factor too. With a cruising speed of Mach .9 — Mach .94, if you were in a hurry — the T-38 could outpace most other jets flying at the time. Most of the time, Gibson and his mission copilot would fly the T-38s single pilot in formation, cruising at an altitude of 40,000 feet.

“That was a wonderful, wonderful airplane to get to fly,” he says. “It was the lightweight Porsche of jet fighter airplanes.”

Over the years, Gibson racked up more than 3,200 hours in the T-38, almost all of which were acquired during the 18 years he served as a NASA astronaut. While the T-38s helped the astronauts keep their piloting skills sharp, spending so many hours in the jet with a high-profile space mission on the horizon also presented the threat of traditional human factors and pilot error, as was evidenced by the 1966 crash of Project Gemini astronauts Elliot See and Charles Bassett on approach to Lambert Field in St. Louis during a regular commuting flight from Houston.

“It got to be very routine, and therefore, you had to keep an eye on yourself,” Gibson says. “You had to make yourself say, ‘This airplane is more than capable of killing me, so let’s pay attention.’”

NASA’s strong focus on safety helped Gibson stay alert on that front, but every once in a while when he was racing from one training session to another, the commute in the T-38 also risked losing its excitement and becoming, for a slight moment, just another task on the to-do list to complete effectively. Snapping out of that mindset, however, wasn’t too difficult for the astronaut. Gibson says he would simply give himself this reminder: “Boy, am I lucky. By golly, I get to fly that cool little Porsche. This is going to be a whole lot of fun.”

Dennis Baer: Aero Commander 100

(Photo courtesy of Dennis Baer|

Dennis Baer first started taking flying lessons at age 18, but like so many student pilots, he was forced to put his dream of a pilot’s license on hold due to the rise of familial and financial commitments. Decades later, however, when he took a job as a quality assurance engineer with The Woodbridge Group in Troy, Michigan, and first saw the office’s close proximity to Oakland/Troy Airport, he resolved to return to flying once again.

He resumed lessons in a Cessna 150 and quickly began looking for the right commuter aircraft to take him on the 25 nm journey northeast from his home in Ypsilanti, a trip that translated into a 45-mile road route on the ground. He settled on a 1965 Aero Commander 100, which he purchased in the late 1990s for $18,500. While not a speedster, the Commander had sturdy landing gear, which were able to forgive a brand new pilot’s experience level, Baer says.

Baer has been making the regular trip from Willow Run Airport, located about six minutes by car from his house, to Oakland/Troy for well over 10 years. On any given day, he typically climbs up to about 2,500 feet and cruises toward the office at 95 knots. In his words, “the plane might be slow, but at 19 minutes per trip, she’s a lot faster than a car.”

Because he lives in southeast Michigan, Baer’s travel plans are often at the mercy of mother nature. Without a hangar at Oakland/Troy and without the ability to start the engine below 30 degrees, he has to resort to a regular commute by car every winter, typically beginning in November and continuing on through March. Since Baer doesn’t have an instrument rating, weather remains a key concern year-round. Poor conditions ground him about one fifth of the time, and since he doesn’t have a car at Troy — just a bicycle — he keeps a close eye on the daily forecast in order to avoid getting stranded at the office. Of course as with all pilots who regularly commute, it has happened, and a family member has come to the rescue and provided a lift back home.

That small risk, however, is well worth the benefits of flying to work in Baer’s mind. “It gets me away from the crazy people on the freeway,” he says. “I’ve really gotten tired of watching tail lights leaping toward the front of my car. When I get out of the car, I’m a little angry, a little on edge from driving that much. When I get out of the airplane, I’m happy.”

(Photo courtesy of NYC Mayor’s Photo Unit/Joseph Reyes)|

Michael Bloomberg: Agusta A109S

It’s not uncommon for politicians to get around via private aircraft, but when it comes to the number of top-tier officials who actually sit behind the controls themselves, the ranks are much smaller. Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg belongs to that exclusive club, combining his love of flying with a hectic schedule that demands frequent, quick travel.

Bloomberg first learned to fly after joining the investment firm Salomon Brothers in 1966 and today holds multi-engine, IFR and helicopter ratings. “It’s been fun; it’s been a challenge, and it has taught me a lot,” Bloomberg writes about flying in his autobiography.

While Bloomberg’s office typically keeps his aircraft trips under wraps, his preference for travel by air is widely known in the region. Since becoming mayor in 2002, he has regularly used a variety of aircraft, including an Agusta A109S owned through his company, Bloomberg L.P., as well as a Mooney Bravo, to take him where the job requires. He is often accompanied by another pilot, who helps ferry the aircraft to Bloomberg’s location or back to Morristown Municipal Airport, where they are hangared.

As Bloomberg commutes throughout the area, he often takes the opportunity to put in a unique kind of face time by giving his business associates a ride. Staten Island Borough President James P. Molinaro has flown with the mayor at the controls of his private aircraft on a number of business occasions, including bill signings, ferry christenings and even the Little League World Series.

“I felt very confident with him at the controls,” Molinaro says of his first ride with Bloomberg. “It obviously wasn’t the first time he’d done it.”

As for the perks of having a mayor with his own aircraft fleet, Molinaro says, “You can’t beat the convenience. It’s definitely an advantage in terms of timing. On a commercial airline, sometimes it takes you longer to get on the plane than it takes to get to your destination.”

Commuting via private aircraft in the public limelight, however, can draw unwanted attention, despite the fact that Bloomberg conducts such travel on his own dime. Some of Bloomberg’s constituents have voiced frustration that he travels in such a fashion while enacting policies that attempt to reduce carbon emissions. The mayor also came under fire last year for arriving and departing frequently at the East 34th Street helipad during specifically designated no-fly hours.

Regardless of the criticism, Bloomberg is not likely to stop commuting via aircraft any time soon. As Molinaro points out, flying in your own airplane puts you in a position of control that other modes of transportation can’t come close to. Bloomberg himself references a similar sentiment in his autobiography while writing about flying. “I’ve never been a spectator,” he writes. “I always prefer doing things myself to watching other people do them.”

(Photo courtesy of Frank Honorof)|

Frank Honorof: Maule MX7

When it comes to commuting in an airplane, one of the obvious hassles is getting from your home to the airport and then onto your final destination once you’ve completed your flight. That is if you have to make those legs of the trip at all. For those like Frank Honorof, who have the pleasure of living on an airfield, the convenience of commuting by air takes on a whole new meaning.

Looking for an idyllic retreat in which to raise their children, Frank and his wife, Carol, moved to a remote ranch lodged in the rustic terrain of northwest Idaho in the early 1990s. The closest town was 17 miles away, and to reach it, the Honorofs had to traverse a dirt road for miles. So as a private pilot with a couple hundred hours under his belt, Frank purchased a used Maule M5 for $52,000 — he would later upgrade to a Maule MX7 — and began flying in and out of a large, flat meadow on his property.

In the years that followed, Honorof commuted from the airstrip on his remote ranch in Snow Valley to the office of his electronics business, located about 60 miles south in a large hangar at Coeur d’Alene Airport. By car, the trek would have taken at least an hour and a half, but in the Maule, the trip was a quick 23 minutes.

Commuting by air was a big change for Honorof, who for years had waded through hour-and-a-half daily commutes in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles.

“Twenty-three minutes each way allowed us to live seventy miles from work and commute three times faster than I’d ever been able to in the Los Angeles Basin,” Honorof writes in a memoir about the experience. “I made the round trip to CDA some 1,900 times, and there wasn’t once that I didn’t see something different, more beautiful or more interesting than I had seen before.”

As little as three months after he and his wife moved into their new home, traveling by airplane became so convenient and routine that the couple barely pulled the car out of the garage. The family used the Maule for everything, including traveling to the grocery store, dance classes and the typically quick visit to McDonalds the kids looked forward to three times a week.

An avid skier, Honorof installed an FAA-approved 7-foot container in the rear of the airplane so it could transport sporting gear and often flew early in the morning to Big Mountain Ski Area in Whitefish, Montana. A trip that would have taken four and a half hours by car took just 48 minutes by air, allowing Honorof to leave the house before 6 a.m. on a workday, ski for an hour or two and be in the office in time to put in a full day’s work.

“Making this conversion to a relatively remote lifestyle would have been unbearable if we couldn’t get around,” Honorof says. “The plane made that possible.”

About 10 years after moving to Snow Valley, changing circumstances led the Honorofs to sell their picturesque ranch and move closer to civilization once again. While Frank’s life no longer requires a trip in a small airplane to reach McDonalds, he always looks back at that period as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, one that his family never would have been able to fully take advantage of if it weren’t for the help of that little Maule.

(Photo courtesy of Dick VanGrunsven)|

Dick VanGrunsven: Van’s RVs

Dick VanGrunsven essentially started the world’s most popular line of kitplanes in his backyard in Reedville, Oregon, during the early 1970s. As the designs of Van’s Aircraft took off, he moved the factory to the nearby city of North Plains, where he built a house on a residential airpark just across the street. For the next 20 years, Van’s flourished there, making commuting to and from the office a nonissue for VanGrunsven. But when the company finally outgrew that space and relocated to Aurora State Airport, about 20 miles south of Portland, he needed a new way to get around. And what better way than to fly the designs you’ve spent your whole life perfecting?

These days, VanGrunsven makes the trip from his home in North Plains to Aurora in the RV-12 LSA, but during the past 13 years in which he’s been performing the commute, he’s flown everything from his RV-4 to his RV-10. By air, the journey is usually about 15 minutes or so, whereas by car, the trek typically takes at least 35 minutes in favorable traffic. In worse conditions, the trip can take up to an hour or more.

Since VanGrunsven lives on an airport and commutes to the factory on an airport, the question of convenience is a no-brainer. But that’s not the main impetus behind his decision to commute by air. “Compared to driving, flying is just fun,” VanGrunsven says. “Even though I’ve flown over the same countryside perhaps 1,500 times over the years, I always see something new. That’s not true of driving down the freeway.”

VanGrunsven used to keep a car at Aurora just in case the weather took an unexpected turn and prevented him from making it back home after a day’s work. As time has gone by, though, he’s become more cautious and doesn’t risk flying when the weather is anything but nice VFR. Instrument conditions aren’t conducive to this type of short flight, he says, because of both safety issues and the additional time required to conduct an IFR trip.

Enjoying semiretirement, VanGrunsven makes the trip over to Aurora about half as often as someone working full time would. As for the economics of making such a frequent journey by air, VanGrunsven says he spends about the same amount of money flying to Aurora as he would driving, thanks to the fact that he already has a handful of aircraft with which to make the trip. “If I had to buy an airplane specifically for this, it wouldn’t pencil out,” he says.

But to VanGrunsven, economics and saved time are only part of the issue. The larger factor, he says, is what commuting in his RV-12 adds to his quality of life. For VanGrunsven, as for so many pilot commuters, the daily trip to work is just one more excuse to go flying. And who doesn’t look forward to that?

Wondering about the economic reality of commuting by aircraft? Read more here in “Commuting via Private Aircraft: A Pricey Luxury or Smart Economics?

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